On September 16, the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England, bound for the New World with 102 passengers. The ship was headed for Virginia, where the colonists—half religious dissenters and half entrepreneurs—had been authorized to settle by the British crown. In a difficult Atlantic crossing, the 90-foot Mayflower encountered rough seas and storms and was blown more than 500 miles off course.
Along the way, the settlers formulated and signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement that bound the signatories into a “civil body politic.” Because it established constitutional law and the rule of the majority, the compact is regarded as an important precursor to American democracy. After a 66-day voyage, the ship landed on November 21 at the tip of Cape Cod at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts.
After coming to anchor in Provincetown harbor, a party of armed men under the command of Captain Myles Standish was sent out to explore the area and find a location suitable for settlement. While they were gone, Susanna White gave birth to a son, Peregrine, aboard the Mayflower. He was the first English child born in New England. In mid-December, the explorers went ashore at a location across Cape Cod Bay where they found cleared fields and plentiful running water, and they named the site Plymouth. The expedition returned to Provincetown, and on December 21 the Mayflower came to anchor in Plymouth harbor. Two days later, the pilgrims began work on dwellings that would shelter them through their difficult first winter in America.
In the first year of settlement, half the colonists died of disease. In 1621, the health and economic condition of the colonists improved, and that autumn Governor William Bradford invited neighboring Indians to Plymouth to celebrate the bounty of that year’s harvest season. Plymouth soon secured treaties with most local Indian tribes, and the economy steadily grew, and more colonists were attracted to the settlement. By the mid-1640s, Plymouth’s population numbered 3,000 people, but by then the settlement had been overshadowed by the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, settled by Puritans in 1629.
The term “Pilgrim” was not used to describe the Plymouth colonists until the early 19th century and was derived from a manuscript in which Governor Bradford spoke of the “saints” who traveled to the New World as “pilgrimes.” In 1820, the orator Daniel Webster spoke of “Pilgrim Fathers” at a bicentennial celebration of Plymouth’s founding, and thereafter the term entered common usage.